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Salem Witchtrials Essay, Research Paper


Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour 1 Peter 5: 8

In the late 17th century, the lion quietly walked among the inhabitants of Salem, Massachusetts. Zealously obedient to this admonishment from the apostle Peter, the pious folk of New England searched their souls and those of their neighbours for even the slightest stain. These Puritan s believed it was their objective to stare down that lion, until Judgment Day saw him vanquished. In the spring and summer of 1692, that great lion roared, and brought with it devastation that tore Salem apart. Nineteen men and women, all having been tried, and convicted of witchcraft, were carted to Gallows Hill, a barren slope on the outskirts of Salem Village, for hanging. Hundreds of others were arrested and imprisoned on witchcraft charges. Dozens languished in jail for months without trials. Then, almost as soon as it had begun, the hysteria that swept through Puritan Massachusetts ended. This travesty of justice, and the subsequent spiral of accusations, trials, and executions can only be accounted for by an unfortunate combination of personal jealousies, teenage boredom, congregational strife, and worsening economic conditions.

By the late 17th century Salem existed if not legally then at least philosophically as two distinct geographical areas : Salem Village and Salem Town. The Salem that the Puritan s were accustomed to was in the midst of change. A mercantile elite was in the early stages of development, and prominent people were becoming less willing to assume positions as town leaders. Two clans, the Putnams and the Porters, were competing for control of the village and its pulpit, and debate was raging over how independent Salem Village, tied more to the interior agricultural regions, should be from Salem Town, a centre of sea trade. Those who lived along Ipswich Road, a major thoroughfare for commerce, were closest to the busy mercantile life of Salem Town. They turned to professions such as innkeepers, potters, sawmill operators and shoemakers, and slowly gained wealth from the new economic order called capitalism. Those in Salem Village continued to work the fields with much of their produce going to support those of Salem Town. Several requests by the farmers to establish their own church, a necessary political entity for Puritans, were answered with a resounding No by Salem Town. With little wealth and no political power, those living in Salem Village felt threatened as the social and economic order they had always known crumbled. Farmers watched their wealthy town neighbors growing richer and leaving behind the Puritan ethic of selflessness and devotion to community.

In 1688, John Putnam, one of the most influential elders of Salem Village, invited Samuel Parris, formerly a marginally successful planter and merchant in Barbados , to preach in the Village church. Twelve months later, after salary negotiations, inflation adjustments, and plenty of free firewood, Parris accepted the once coveted position of Village minister. In November 1689, he moved to Salem Village with his wife Elizabeth, six-year-old daughter Betty, niece Abigail Williams, and his slave Tituba, a West African native whom Parris had acquired in Barbados. The arrival of Rev. Parris sparked more tension, with the new pastor becoming a touchstone for even more conflict. His particular talent for harping on uncomfortable subjects emerged, and he persisted with talking about the unsettling themes that already distressed his neighbours, such as the changing social and economic world. Disguising these changes in the allegory of a battle between heaven and hell Christ and Satan, the Reverend struck a responsive cord within his congregation, who already saw the devil lurking in their midst. Supporters for and against Parris were divided almost exactly along geographical lines the people of Salem Village supported him enthusiastically, whilst those closer to Salem Town just as vigorously wanted him gone. On October 16, 1691, those villagers against Parris halted their contributions to his salary, and vowed to drive him out of Salem.

Seeking release from the tension choking their family, young Betty and Abigail delighted in the fantastic tales about omens, voodoo, and witchcraft spun by Tituba from her native folklore. The cousins invited their friends over to indulge in this deliciously forbidden diversion, and the small audience listened intently as Tituba told of seeing into the future, and divulging information as to what trade their sweethearts should be of. Then, on a cold morning, with the shadows of a warm wood fire flickering on the wall, the two bored young girls devised an innocent game. They bent their heads over a glass in which they had just dropped the white of an egg, and peered at their primitive crystal ball in order to discern the shapes made by the dripping egg, in a vain attempt to be privy to their future. As Puritans living in the year 1692, dabbling in the occult practice of fortune-telling was strictly forbidden, and tampering with the affairs of God could easily open the door to Satan. It was easy to believe in Salem, with an Indian war raging and the village in political turmoil, that the devil was close at hand. Looking into their homemade device, one of the girls saw the distinct shape of a coffin.

What ensued subsequent to the strange apparition nobody knows for certain. Betty and Abigail became violently ill, and began to exhibit outrageous behaviour, – fits as they were called by the people of Salem. The girls behaved strangely, by getting into holes, and creeping under chairs and stools , their bodies contorted into odd postures and antic gestures whilst shouting incomprehensible gibberish. Unfortunately these fits were not confined to the house of Samuel Parris. Similar to a plague, the symptoms spread to at least eight other girls ranging in age from 12 to 19. These included Ann Putnam, the youngest daughter of Parris employer John Putnam, and Mary Easty who later admitted to lying about her afflictions, and accused the other girls during the trials of 1692. This statement was quickly revoked, and she joined the accusers once more. Eventually, even some adults were afflicted. Doctors were unable to help, as the symptoms defied medical explanation. Prayer and fasting, the Puritan cure for such maladies was also unable to prevent the fits. William Griggs, a doctor from the town was asked to examine the girls, and when his own nostrums failed to affect a cure, he suggested that the girl s symptoms were possibly of a supernatural origin. It was widely believed that witches targeted children, which made the doctors diagnosis increasingly likely. In a village where everyone believed the devil was real, close at hand, and acted in the real world, the suspected affliction of the girls became an obsession. Unspoken fears began to voice themselves, and in the Salem community, where witchcraft and Satan stood ready to break down the doors of a God-fearing community, no other explanation could be found except that the girls were bewitched. But who had done the bewitching?

Pressured by ministers and townspeople, the afflicted girls began to make accusations. Fingers were pointed first at the disenfranchised – those who were believed to be deviant or strange. People who were considered on the fringes of society were typically the casualties of witch-hunts, and Salem Village did not differ in its initial choice of victims. In Colonial America, sporadic jailing, or perhaps an execution, were usually enough to assuage fears and bring the matter of witchcraft to an end. However, for the people of Salem Village, sending their accused neighbors to the gaol did not stop the finger pointing, and the allegations took an uncharacteristic turn. Soon wealthy people, successful merchants, church members and those considered God-fearing citizens were indicted on charges of witchcraft.

Among the first three alleged witches was Sarah Good, a forlorn, friendless, and forsaken creature, broken down by wretchedness of condition and ill repute an object for compassion rather than punishment. Sarah was the daughter of a prosperous innkeeper, John Solart, who took his own life in 1672, when Sarah was 17, leaving an estate of 500 pounds after debt. His estate was divided between his widow and two eldest sons, and after testimony of an oral will, a share of the estate was to be awarded to each of the seven daughters when they came of age. Contrary to what was concluded, Mrs. Solart hurriedly remarried, and consequently her new husband came into possession of her portion, and also the unpaid portions owing to the daughters – the girls never received what they were entitled to from the Solart estate. Sarah married Daniel Poole, who died soon after, leaving Sarah and her new second husband William Good only debts. Their land was taken and auctioned to satisfy their creditors, and by the time of the witch-hunt, the Goods were homeless, destitute, and seeking work, food and shelter from their neighbours. Sarah fitted the prevalent stereotype of a witch perfectly, and her tendency to reprimand neighbours who were unresponsive to her demands for charity generated a wealth of testimony at her trial. Whilst at least seven villagers testified to her angry demeanour and general turbulence after charity was denied, the most detrimental evidence to her case was the accusation by her four-year-old daughter, Dorcas, who was also charged with witchcraft. The child was arrested on March 23, and gave a confession, unknowingly implicating her mother as a witch in doing so.

The proceedings against Good were described as “cruel, and shameful to the highest degree,” possibly due to the fact some of the spectral evidence given against Good was proved to be false at the time of her examination. During the trial, one of the afflicted girls cried out that she was being stabbed with a knife by the apparition of Good. Upon examination, a broken knife was found on the girl. However, as soon as it was shown to the court, a young man came forward with the other part of the knife, and told the court that he had broken it yesterday and had discarded it in the presence of the afflicted girls. Although the girl was reprimanded and warned not to lie again, the known falsehood had no effect on Good’s trial. Her guilty verdict was known before the trial had even begun. “There was no one in the country against whom popular suspicion could have been more readily directed, or in whose favor and defense less interest could be awakened.” Good was hanged at Gallows Hill on July 19, and showed no remorse at her execution. Minister Nicholas Noyes proceeded to elicit a confession, but Sarah would not yield to judicial pressure. “You are a liar. I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink.” Good s prophecy appears to have come true, as Noyes later died of internal haemorrhage, bleeding profusely at the mouth.

Another singular character, not easily described was Bridget Bishop, who, with an entire town against her, was charged, tried and executed within 7 days. Bishop had been accused by more individuals than any other defendant, and more vehemently than any other defendant, not primarily for her sundry acts of witchcraft but for her;

Flamboyant life style, and exotic style of dress more artistically than women of the village a black cap, and a black hat, and a red paragon bodice bordered and looped with different colours

Dressing in fashionable apparel was thought to be a snare and sign of the devil . Despite the fact that she attended church regularly, Bishop always entertained the villagers with her public quarrels with any of her three husbands, her entertainments until late in the evening at her home, her drinking habits, and the fact that she was the mistress of two taverns in town. This obvious disregard for the Puritan way of life made Bridget a prime target for accusation. A warrant was issued for her arrest on the charge of witchcraft on April 8, 1692. At this time, Bishop was not a stranger to the courthouse her frequent arguing in public with her husband had landed her there often before. At her questioning, Bishop saw her accusers for the first time, and the afflicted girls writhed in supposed pain at her presence. Upon asked if she had been in contact with the devil, Bishop answered; I am innocent, I know nothing of it, I have done no witchcraft…. I am as innocent as the child unborn. But with her husband s testimony that his wife was familiar with the devil Bridget was sentenced to hang at gallows Hill on June 10, 1692. As the villagers crowded around, she professed her innocence again, and displayed no remorse. Almost a year after her execution – in deathbed confessions – a few of her accusers claimed their accusations were wholly groundless.

Rebecca Nurse, perhaps the least likely to be in league with the devil, was tried, pronounced guilty, and sentenced to execution from June 29-30, 1692. She was 71 years old at the hour of her death, and had

“Acquired a reputation for exemplary piety that was virtually unchallenged in the community this venerable lady, whose conversation and bearing were so truly saint-like, was an invalid of extremely delicate condition and appearance, the mother of a large family, embracing sons, daughters, grandchildren, and one or more great-grand children. She was a woman of piety, and simplicity of heart.”

Nurse was the only accused whose trial prompted signs of doubt. Thirty-nine of the most prominent members of the community signed a petition on her behalf, and the magistrate wavered on the issue in view of her age, character, and sincere professions of innocence however, when he would begin to look uncertain during the questioning, one of the afflicted girls would proclaim Nurse was tormenting her. The surprising verdict of not guilty was greeted with a hideous outcry from the afflicted girls and the bloodthirsty spectators -particularly the Putnams, who had a longstanding quarrel with Nurse s family – and the jury were forced to reconsider. Nurse was old and partially deaf, and when asked to explain one of her answers, Nurse did not reply, as she did not hear the magistrate her silence was taken as an indication of guilt. On July 3, the pious woman was excommunicated from her church, and it was not until 15 years later that this decision was revoked and her family could attend the church. Rebecca Nurse was executed at Gallows hill on July 19, along with four other convicted witches.

By this time, Salem Village was in anarchy, farms were neglected and showed signs of decay, and the regular life of commerce had almost halted. The rapidly changing world obviously contributed significantly to the hysteria and atrocities of the year. Seeking out the witches had become a crusade, which quickly turned into a convulsion proving the witch hunters far more perilous than their prey. On October 8, 1692 Governor Phipps ordered that spectral evidence was no longer permitted in witchcraft trials, as the evidence ought to be as clear as in any other crimes of a capital nature Jails had reached capacity and Salem teetered on the brink of chaos Salem s lust for blood seemed to be fading, and everyone was beginning to audibly question how so many respectable people could be witches. Reverend John Hale said, ” It cannot be imagined that in a place of so much knowledge, so many in so small compass of land should abominably leap into the Devil’s lap at once.”

A period of atonement began in the colony, as the educated elite began efforts to end the witch-hunting hysteria that had enveloped Salem. By October 29, Gov. Phipps did not allow further arrests, and released some accused witches dwelling in the gaol. January of the next year saw 49 of the 52 surviving people brought into court on witchcraft charges released, as their arrests were based on spectral evidence. In May of 1693, everyone still imprisoned was pardoned. Joseph Green replaced Minister Samuel Parris, from whose home the first cries of witchcraft arose, as minister in Salem. Parris conceded his errors of judgement during the trials, but mainly shifted the blame to others. One of the judges, Samuel Sewall, issued a public apology and confession of guilt, as did several jurors. In 1706, Ann Putnam, one of the most prominent accusers in the trials publicly apologised for her actions in 1692. I desire to be humbled before God. It was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time. I did not do it out of anger, malice or ill- will Six years after the apology, the colony passed a legislative bill restoring the rights and good names of the hundreds who were accused of witchcraft, and granted 600 pounds in restitution to their heirs. In the year 1752, Salem Village was renamed Danvers, and in 1957, Massachusetts formally apologized for the unlawful atrocities -the execution of 33 innocent people and the imprisonment of hundreds which occurred in the spring and summer of 1692, due to a deadly combination of personal jealousies, teenage boredom, congregational strife, and worsening economic conditions.



Salem Hysteria http://witchcraft.simplenet/hysteria.html

Salem Witch Trials http:/etext.Virginia.edu/salem/index/witchcraft.html

Salem Museum http://www.salemweb.net/witches/.htm

Would You Survive? www.nationalgeographic.com/features/salem/98/

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